Humans have shorter attention spans than goldfish. Are 3-4 minutes songs really necessary?

Whether it’s writing a resume for a job application, meeting a partner’s parents for the first time or navigating through the muck of the ‘net, grabbing attention will always be a mandatory virtue. It’s what keeps people engaged and is one of the flightiest unknowns of the human psyche. In short it’s … wait, what were we talking about?

But is that the reason we’ve stuck to 3-4 minutes in song length, to quench a predictive attention span? The golden mark hasn’t changed much, if at all, through commercial history and remains industry standard for any artist wanting to be plugged into popular radio.

The easy answer would be archaic engineering confines are to blame (or that we’re all too comfortable to break century-old habits), but if our recording mediums are infinitely more powerful than they were in the 20th century, why then hasn’t a song’s length changed as well?

The first records made between 1858 and the 1950s were called a “78” — meaning it’s able to make 78 rotations per minute during play. The old technology comes in two sizes: 10-inch (which holds 3 minutes of music) and a 12-inch (4 minutes). The 10-inch model was the more popular of the two and remained the most used format for recording music for many decades.

The 78 eventually gave way to the 45 rpm 7-inch — a smaller, more durable product — but the length of music able to record on a side remained. To maximize sound quality on the new size, a 3 minute and 30 second length was deemed optimal even though more time could fit if the grooves in the record were closer together. The term “single” quickly became an industry standard for bands wanting their music played on radio because of it, as most only accepted submissions on the 45 format. Recording just one song per side was seen as mandatory, so musicians often tailored their music to fit within the best quality confines.

A typical “hit” song was, and still is, recorded in a Verse – Chorus – Verse2 – Chorus2 – Bridge – Chorus3 progression. It’s easier, digestible and allows the listener a chance to learn the song quickly without it getting too chaotic and off-putting. The factor also lends itself to brevity, something radio needs a lot of in order to fill waves with more songs and ever-important advertisements.

As with anything that has deep roots in habit, radio’s format has changed little since the middle of the 1900s, and singles continue to rely on the 3-4 minute mark for completion. Never have there been hordes of listeners demanding artists to make longer songs, nor will we probably ever see it in our lifetime. As a whole we’re happy with how we’re given music, and if it ain’t broke, why bother fixing it?

If an artist does keep himself or herself away from time constraints and runs grossly over the 3-4 minute mark, a “radio cut” of the single will generally take place, chopping and screwing it down to fit the radio habit. So even if an artist isn’t limited by technology, they’ll eventually be limited by media gatekeepers if they wish to garner radio success.

That’s not to say artists don’t challenge the expected frame. Many classics the likes of “Hey Jude” from the Beatles (7:05), Don Mclean’s “American Pie” (8:33), Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (26:05) and Jethro Tull’s “Thick As A Brick” (43:50), all trounced well over the standard and gained insane amounts of acceptance for being pillars of their respected eras.

According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the longest song — released on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify on Jan 10, 2014 — is “Zwei Jahre” by German artist Phrasenmäher. It holds an official duration of 1:30:10 in length.

The Flaming Lips — that often goes against industry norms anyways — have had multiple releases extending past the 3-4 minute mark. In 2011 it released the six-hour-long “I Found This Star On The Ground” and even beat that in the same year with the experimental “7 Skies H3” — which takes a full day to get through, coming in at 24 hours (We’re not entirely sure why The Flaming Lips wouldn’t hold the world record, but we’re guessing it has a lot to do with the structure the “songs” are written in and if it officially counts as one song or is just continuous music being played for a length of time).

Other music geeks speculate that the 3-4 minute song length is a serendipitous coincidence and our attentions hold value behind the duration because if it were any less it would be akin to a commercial, any longer and it would get boring. Forum users abound claim the guideline is just the right amount of music until we as a species want to switch up and move onto the next. We’re a finicky bunch, indeed.

So whether the length is because of engineering defaults, a magical attention number or something we’re just socially conditioned to accept, the current length will undoubtedly change little in our lifetime because as it stands there isn’t any viable reason to shift existing conditions.

Unless of course music wants to align itself with Internet journalism standards, where an outlet only has less than 8 seconds to capture a reader. Then maybe we could get out to shows more often and be home in time to catch the rest of Shark Tank.

Current Top 10 via Billboard 100 Chart with lengths:

1. “Uptown Funk” – Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars, 4:30
2. “Thinking Out Loud” – Ed Sheeran, 4:42
3. “Take Me To Church” – Hozier, 4:02
4. “Blank Space” – Taylor Swift, 4:33
5. “Sugar” – Maroon 5, 3:55
6. “Lips Are Movin” – Meghan Trainor, 3:03
7. “I’m Not The Only One” – Sam Smith, 3:59
8. “Jealous” – Nick Jonas, 3:42
9. “Centuries” – Fall Out Boy, 3:52
10. “Time of our Lives” – Pitbull, feat. Ne-Yo, 3:49